An amendment to help build healthy, balanced and self-regulating edible ecosystems, and to sequester carbon in the soil
I would have been happy with a lump of coal in my Christmas stocking this year. Specifically, biochar crushed into tiny flakes and shards of ice and snow.
Children, my friends and I worked all year round to avoid having a sedimentary lump of charred plant material in our slippers, or fallen into neatly hung socks. Coal was equated with “naughty,” and for many it still is.
Coal was created over millions of years, when dead biomass (plant material) decomposed into peat and was then converted by heat and pressure into combustible rock.
Mass mining and burning of coal, as humans have done since the Industrial Revolution, has resulted in what climatologists report to be the largest anthropogenic (human-made) source of atmospheric CO2 contributing to climate change.
There is no damage to fix, but knowing what we are doing about the carbon and who owns the surplus – underground, not in the atmosphere – can help us sequester carbon in biochar in a way. which benefits not only the planet in general, but our vegetable gardens in particular.
Biochar is a form of charcoal that is made accidentally or intentionally when biomass is “burned” in an oxygen-poor environment. This can occur naturally in a hearth covered with smoldering earth, as the pre-Columbian Amazonians practiced, and it can occur through a complex process known as extreme pyrolysis (charring).
During my former life as a corporate communicator, I introduced mobile and small-scale pyrolysis as a green and productive closed-loop system of bio-waste management and power generation for small communities. Looking back, we were surfing calm waters a dozen years before the climate change awareness loop.
Permachargers make biochar in small homemade biochar ovens or in pits. Farm and garden scraps such as wood waste, clippings, pods, leaves, needles, stalks, straw, etc. carbon.
Examined under an electron microscope, these sponge-like skeletons look like miniature insect hotels. When biochar is broken down into small pieces and used as a soil amendment, gardens benefit from its water absorption and retention qualities. Microbes roam the millions and millions of tiny habitats where they can more easily and efficiently work their collaborative magic alongside the mycelium and other organic garden parties.
Research suggests that biochar attracts the beneficial elements that plants need to thrive, preventing nutrients from escaping from the rhizosphere (root zone) where they would no longer be available to plants.
The biochar in composts reduces odors, balances moisture, reduces off-gassing, and improves soil biology. The biochar in seed starter mixes helps retain moisture and prevents nutrient leaching. Gradually adding biochar to all levels of organic home gardens can, over time, help create healthy, balanced and self-regulating edible ecosystems and sequester carbon in the soil.
Perhaps one day, when public will and environmental legislation reach serenity and pyrolysis becomes more widely accepted, biochar entry bins will be on our sidewalks for collection. Until then, we are doing what we can individually and collectively to sequester carbon.
I have been adding biochar in small doses to my raised beds and composts for the past two years. Homemade – admittedly imperfectly – so there is a certain amount of ash that accompanies the journey. Wood ash is not biochar and it is important to recognize the difference.
Wood ash has been used as a natural fertilizer for centuries and can be a wonderful source of nutrients and trace elements. The nutrients in wood ash vary depending on the type of wood, and if used directly without pre-composting, it can burn plants and alter soil pH. It is advisable to do some research and test the soil’s pH before adding wood ash.
Biochar is an idea whose time has come. We hear and read more about biochar in conversations related to the natural wisdom of lightning fires, in conversations about organic gardening, and now here in Garden to Table thoughts on urban permaculture.
I gave some potted biochar this Christmas to some naughty and nice garden friends. In this New Year, I hope to share our collective observations related to its use indoors and outdoors, in gardens of all sizes.
Until then, stay safe and warm.
Laura Marie Neubert is an urban permaculture designer based in West Vancouver. Follow her on Instagram @upfrontandbeautiful, learn more about permaculture by visiting her Upfront & Beautiful website, or send her your questions here.
For a taste of permaculture, click on the YouTube link below:
(Video – Courtesy of West Vancouver Memorial Library)